Transforming a protest novel about child exploitation and abuse in Victorian England into a feel-good family musical could not have been easy. But in the Broadway-West End smash “Oliver!,” based on Charles Dickens’ classic novel “Oliver Twist,” writer-composer Lionel Bart did the job with aplomb.
The 5th Avenue Theatre last mounted this lively and melodious show (which spun off an Oscar-winning movie) more than two decades ago. Now the company has dusted it off and turned out a robust, handsome revival that’s likely to be a holiday hit.
5th Avenue artistic honcho David Armstrong’s all-out staging has nearly everything on one’s “Oliver!” wishlist.
It boasts a big, impressive cast, starting, on opening night, with the gifted, natural and cute-as-the-dickens Jack Fleischmann in the title role. (He alternates in the part with Mark Jeffrey James Weber.) The colorful ragamuffin costumes by Sarah Nash Gates enhance Tom Sturge’s first-rate lighting and multilevel, picturesque scenic design.
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Bob Richard supplies the vivacious choreography in such crowd-pleasing production numbers as “Consider Yourself” (led by young Grayson J. Smith’s delightfully raffish Artful Dodger) and the pub rave “Oom-Pah-Pah.” And Bart’s memorable score is ably dispatched by the singers and pit players, with fresh arrangements by Bruce Monroe that lighten and brighten the orchestral textures.
This is a straightforward, on-the-nose “Oliver!,” in contrast to recent productions that aimed to de-romanticize an innocent’s adventures in a den of juvenile Cockney pickpockets, and comment on the anti-Semitic aspects of Dickens’ portrait of their ringleader Fagin, “the Jew.”
David Pichette plays the latter with lip-smacking gusto, and cannily avoids ethnic caricature. His Fagin is a twinkly, eloquent miscreant with benevolent affection for his street urchins, even as he is enslaving them.
Merideth Kaye Clark’s fetching earthiness and powerhouse pipes fit Nancy, the urchins’ surrogate mum and Oliver’s savior, to a T. (She belts the show’s signature masochistic ballad, “As Long as He Needs Me,” out of the park.)
And Hans Altwies adds an essential shiver of danger as Nancy’s volatile lover Bill Sykes. In highwayman garb, the glowering Altwies makes a killer entrance with his threatening song “My Name,” and later executes a daring, gasp-worthy stunt off a high balcony.
If there’s anything amiss, it is the loudly overzealous clowning of the “respectable” adults who help destroy childhood innocence — particularly the pompous workhouse beadle Mr. Bumble (Hugh Hastings), and the shrieking, sourpuss wife of a coffinmaker (Carol Swarbrick).
While “Oliver!” can make London’s gritty underbelly look like one big party, it also retains some of the pain, poignancy and tragedy that were essential to Dickens’ protest novel. The darker second act has some scary moments for very young children, including a short but vicious act of violence.
But in a world where child labor persists, and benefits American consumers, the show may spark a worthwhile child-parent conversation on the subject. In any case, “Oliver!” sends 5th Avenue patrons out on a merry note with a chipper reprise of “Consider Yourself,” sung by the whole ensemble.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org